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Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. If you’ve ever had chickenpox, the virus that caused it, called the varicella-zoster virus, remains in your body. It lies dormant in your nerves and can come back, even years later, as the painful, blistering rash of Shingles. So if you’ve had chickenpox, the Shingles virus is already inside you. And, there’s an even greater risk the virus will erupt into a blistering rash as you get older.
Shingles may begin with an itching, tingling, burning, or pain in a single area on one side of the body or face. Sometimes the pain is accompanied by a headache or a general feeling of being unwell. For those who experience the initial skin sensations, 2 to 3 days later a rash will usually appear as a band or a strip on one side of the body. The Shingles rash can be red, blistering, and extremely painful, and it can last up to 30 days.
The painful rash most often stretches along one side of the torso as a band. This band is the area where the nerve endings connect with the skin and is called a dermatome. But the Shingles rash can appear on any part of the body, including on the face.
The Shingles rash is red and blistering. The fluid-filled blisters may first appear in a localized area on one side of the body. The rash can be made up of many blisters grouped together or blisters scattered here and there on the skin. The rash commonly follows along one side of the torso in a band. This band, or dermatome, is the area where the nerve endings surface on the body.
See photos of the Shingles rash.
Yes, some people may develop long-term nerve pain, meaning that the pain can last for months, or even years, after the rash has healed. This is known as postherpetic neuralgia, or PHN. The rash might also leave permanent scarring or changes to the color of the skin. Sometimes Shingles can result in other serious complications. In very rare cases, loss of hearing or vision impairment can occur when Shingles involves the ear or eye, respectively.
Learn more about the possible complications of Shingles.
If you’ve ever had chickenpox, you’re at risk for Shingles. And because 98% of adults in the United States have had chickenpox, most adults are at risk. The chickenpox virus, known as varicella-zoster virus, never leaves your body. It can reactivate years later and emerge as Shingles — a red, blistering rash, often accompanied by pain, which may be deep and penetrating. And, because your immune system can weaken with age, your risk of developing Shingles increases as you get older. It’s important to remember that Shingles can happen to you at any time, even if you feel perfectly healthy.
Your immune system can weaken as you get older, and that makes it easier for the Shingles virus to break through your defenses. That’s why your risk for Shingles increases as you get older. In fact, the biggest increase in the number of Shingles cases happens after age 50, and 1 of 2 people will have had Shingles by the time they reach 85.
Because the body’s immune system is what keeps the chickenpox virus from re-emerging as the painful, blistering rash of Shingles, anything that compromises your immune system can put you at increased risk.
Since 98% of adults in the United States have had chickenpox, there’s a good chance you’ve had it, too. Your doctor can tell you if you’ve had chickenpox and if the virus that causes Shingles is inside you.
In most cases, the Shingles rash is extremely painful; however, the intensity of pain can vary drastically from one person to the next. The pain can range from mild or moderate to severe. People who have had Shingles described their pain as sharp, stabbing, shooting, burning, and throbbing. In more severe cases, a person’s skin can become hypersensitive, causing the person to experience discomfort from normal stimuli.
Shingles typically lasts anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks. That’s usually how long it takes for the blisters to erupt, scab over, and completely heal. In some cases, Shingles can cause complications like postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), which is long-term nerve pain that can last for months, even years after the rash heals.
There are approximately 1 million new cases of Shingles each year in the United States, and 1 in 3 people will get the disease in their lifetime.
It is possible to get Shingles more than once. So, if you’ve had Shingles before, it’s still important to talk to your doctor or pharmacist about your risk of getting it again.
Shingles can strike at any time, even if you feel healthy. If you’ve had chickenpox at some point in the past, you’re at risk for Shingles. And your risk increases as you get older. So talk to your doctor or pharmacist and discuss your risk.